U.S. says Russia repaints warplanes before shipping them to Libya

The United States has accused Russia of covertly deploying fighter jets to Libya to support the Libyan National Army (LNA) in its offensive on the capital, Tripoli, where they are battling forces backed by Turkey, the Arab Weekly said. 

On Tuesday, the U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) said the Russian military aircraft had arrived in Libya recently from an air base in Russia via Syria and had been repainted to conceal their Russian origin.

“For too long, Russia has denied the full extent of its involvement in the ongoing Libyan conflict. Well, there is no denying it now. We watched as Russia flew fourth generation jet fighters to Libya - every step of the way,” U.S. Army General Stephen Townsend said in a statement. 

“Russian military aircraft are likely to provide close air support and offensive fire,” the AFRICOM said in a statement posted on its website and on Twitter.

The U.S. statement quoted U.S. Air Force General Jeff Harrigian as warning that, if Russia seized bases on Libya’s coast, it would “create very real security concerns on Europe’s southern flank.”

Reports last week of a Russian MiG-29 fighter jet that had been spotted at an LNA air base, as well as intelligence on six MiG-29s and two Su-24 Fencer combat jets that had also reportedly arrived to join the LNA’s forces, added to concerns of a new escalation in the conflict.

Answering questions on the Russian aircraft in Washington, Pentagon spokesman Jonathan Hoffman said there were “approximately 14 military fighters, a mix of Su-24s and MiG-29s” in Libya. Neither Hoffman nor AFRICOM said when the jets had been sent to the country.

Turkey is backing the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA) headed by Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj in its fight against rebel General Khalifa Haftar’s LNA forces, which are supported by Russia, the United Arab Emirates, and Egypt, among others.

Last Monday, GNA forces captured al-Watiya airbase after Turkey stepped up its military intervention, sending drones, air defence systems, armoured vehicles and thousands of Syrian mercenaries.

The LNA has denied any foreigners are fighting with it, but the United Nations said this month that Russian private military contractor Wagner Group had up to 1,200 people in Libya.

“Russia has employed state-sponsored Wagner in Libya to conceal its direct role and to afford Moscow plausible deniability of its malign actions,” the U.S. statement said.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Tuesday told Libyan Parliament Speaker Aguila Saleh that Moscow backed an immediate ceasefire and political talks for a settlement, the Arab Weekly said. 

However, Haftar said on Saturday his forces would continue fighting and they have stepped up air strikes.

Last week, the UN envoy to Libya, Stephanie Williams, warned the Security Council that the escalating fighting, driven by foreign-supplied weapons, warplanes, and mercenaries, risked “turning the Libyan conflict into a pure proxy war”.